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Why rim protection is a need for the Cleveland Cavaliers

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In going with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, the Cavs put themselves on this path.

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever your opinion of the Cavs’ betting on a Collin Sexton-Darius Garland backcourt is, an indisputable concern is their ability to defend. That makes having a strong defensive backline — and a center who can defend the rim — essential. Having so many young players with another incoming on the roster overall only adds to the need.

Right now, the Cavs don’t have that. Tristan Thompson is a good defensive player, but he doesn’t eat up shots at the rim and is about to hit free agency. Larry Nance Jr. is a similarly solid, mobile defender, but has the same limitations. He also doesn’t have the bulk to defend the growing number of massive, mobile centers in the league. Kevin Love at the five lineups don’t get off the ground largely because of defense. If the Cavs could get consistent league-average rim protection, it would be a huge help.

If there is a true rim protector on the current Cavs roster, it’s Andre Drummond. In his career, there have been stretches where Drummond is an impact defender. He has the athleticism and size to be the kind of big the Cavs need in their drop-heavy scheme.

BBall Index’s various rim protection stats rate him the upper fourth of the league in stats like percentage of rim shots protected, rim dFG% vs. expected and blocks per 75 possessions. He definitely is does stuff.

But his track record isn’t as an elite defensive center. Drummond is better than Thompson and Nance in this area, but there’s also a sizeable gap between him and the NBA’s elite defense centers: Rudy Gobert, Jusuf Nurkic, engaged Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol, etc. For instance, here’s how they compare at defending shots within five feet, per nba.com:

  • Andre Drummond: 14.3 attempts per game defended, 64.7%
  • Marc Gasol: 15 attempts per game, 57.3%
  • Joel Embiid: 16.8 attempts per game, 60.1%
  • Rudy Gobert: 20.4 attempts per game, 60.4%
  • Jusuf Nurkic in 2018-19: 19.2 attempts per game, 56.6%

Drummond is also worse at this than a Ivica Zubac-type — a player who has less raw talent, but makes significantly less money. That has to matter if the Cavs are considering paying Drummond.

He also doesn’t deter players from taking shots at the rim in a way any of those players do as rated by BBall Index. (Data on Nurkic is not currently available.)

  • Andre Drummond rim deterrence: 18th percentile, F grade
  • Rudy Gobert rim deterrence: 92nd percentile, A grade
  • Marc Gasol rim deterrence: 95th percentile, A grade
  • Joel Embiid rim deterrence: 100th percentile, league-best
  • Ivica Zubac: 47th percentile, C grade

Drummond’s style also arguably limits his defensive impact. (Of note: the Pistons had bottom-10 defenses in four of his seven-plus seasons in Detroit.) Compared to, say, Nurkic, he relies on his athleticism to make a play vs. moving his feet and altering a shot.

It works sometimes because Drummond is a high-level athlete, but it limits his impact as a defensive anchor. If he goes for a highlight block and misses, it means he’s either fouling a shooter, creating an opening by being out of a position or both.

Is there a world where Drummond can take a step up on defense over the course of a full season, even if it’s not all the way up to the elite of the elite? Yes, and J.B. Bickerstaff’s preferred drop-heavy scheme fits Drummond. (It’s also not all on Drummond because the Cavs are abhorrent defensively.) But can Bickerstaff get Drummond (assuming he’s on the roster) to buy and commit on that end of the floor, especially if the Cavs struggle? That’s a massive unknown.

The template for the ideal Cavs center is either Nurkic or Gasol. Nurkic is the obvious example considering he plays behind the Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum backcourt that the Cavs have cited as a template. Behind those two, Nurkic eats up driving opponents while being constantly aware of what’s happening around him. He blocks shots, but doesn’t hunt for them. If the Cavs could get 80% of him from Drummond or someone else, it would be massive.

But also watch those clips for the guard play. Portland’s perimeter players do their part to support to help Nurkic when he drops. They make contact with the roller, communicate and are doing their part to make the scheme work. In 2018-19 before Nurkic’s leg injury, it wasn’t an elite defense, but enough to help them make the playoffs and compete at the highest level. It was also 7.3 points better per 100 possessions than the 2018-19 Cavs and 5.3 points better possessions than this year’s Cavs.

If Cleveland wants to be respectable again, getting to at least that point on defense is super necessary. Rim protection is a big, big part of getting there.